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Muskets are not everyone’s cup of tea. But such weapons are not quite so offputting if you read Robinson Crusoe as a child, the famous story of a seafarer stranded on a desert island; or if you were so enthralled by the book that you later decided to deal in islands; or if, decades later, the great-great-great-granddaughter of the seafarer on whose life the novel was based, dies, and it turns out that in her will she states that there is no more worthy heir to the stranded sailor’s antique gun than you: Farhad Vladi, Hamburger, 69 years old, island broker for more than four decades.
What do you do then? Be coy, say you couldn’t possibly accept the precious gift simply because you had done business with each other a while back – until the son of the deceased comes along and creates facts: A will is a will, not a matter for discussion; the musket comes to Hamburg. And here it now lies, in an office overlooking the Binnenalster lake in the center of Hamburg. The year 1705 is scratched into the shaft along with a name, Alexander Selkirk – that of the sailor who inspired Daniel Defoe’s novel.
It all began when 18-year-old Farhad Vladi was waiting for his friend Jakob to arrive at a café where they had arranged to meet. Jakob was late and while Vladi waited, his eye was caught by a newspaper and the story of a someone he had never heard of, who had just bought an island for 5000 deutschmarks. “Hey, Jakob, I’m going to buy myself an island tomorrow,” he told his friend, when he finally turned up. Five thousand deutschmarks, he could scrape that much together somehow. Parents and relatives would lend him something for sure. But it wasn’t to be right then. Instead his parents wanted him to complete an apprenticeship with the bank, get himself a proper job first.
In the early 1970s, Vladi sends 100 deutschmarks to a newspaper on the Seychelles, requesting it to place an ad: “Wanted – island to buy” But what he doesn’t know is that 100 deutschmarks will buy him a whole page over there. Very soon, he hears back from an islander.
Vladi’s first client wants 300,000 deutschmarks for his island. Vladi draws up a prospectus and makes the rounds of Hamburg society in search of a buyer. In the end, three Hamburg businessmen seal the deal and Vladi earns a three-percent commission – 9000 deutschmarks. “For a young man like me, that was a fantastic amount of money,” he recalls.
He now has around 12,000 islands dotted about the oceans belonging to a good 40 countries in his archive, which is the work of decades. When an island changes hands somewhere on the plant, he is usually involved. At present, he has around 120 islands on his books. Although for most people, palms, sandy beaches and constant sunshine spring to mind when they think of desert islands, but palms and constant sunshine actually cancel each other out: Rain is an occasional must because otherwise you would always have good weather, but not a single plant on your island.
To put it another way: Tropical islands are great, but so are islands off the coast of Canada or Northern Europe. Whispering Trees is one of the islands off the east coast of Canada – a fine place for fishing, canoeing, rambling. That’s the one type of island. The other could be Taiaro, for instance – an atoll in French Polynesia with a 12-square-kilometer lagoon. It’s all a matter of taste, as Vladi puts it. The main motive for purchasing an island is always the same, though: absolute peace. “You get there, and none of the things that got on your nerves at home are there: There’s no traffic, no stress, no bad news.”
It’s this remoteness and seclusion that has prompted more and more NGOs and states to buy islands in recent years, especially when the islands are inhabited by rare or endangered animal or plant species. Vladi has sold over 200 islands to Canada, for example. Although he is duty bound, as a real estate agent, to forward all offers to the vendor, he does voice recommendations. In his view, the greater the client’s interest in preserving the island in its natural form, the better.
These days, leasing is becoming an increasingly important way to come by island, as compared with purchasing one. And celebrities especially tend – unexpectedly – to opt for rental. Exceptions prove the rule, however, and one such is Johnny Depp, in whose island purchase Vladi had a hand. The actor is practically the ideal buyer in terms of nature conservation – if you can actually talk about nature conservation when it takes an air and sea journey of thousands of kilometers to get there. “A jetty was all Depp built there; otherwise he has left the island completely intact,” says Vladi. His vacations there look something like this: He arrives in his yacht, ties up at the jetty, takes walks on the island but eats and sleeps on board.
International superstars are the exception among Vladi’s clientele. Most of his buyers are not famous; many are freelancers: lawyers, tax advisors, doctors, and also self-employed tradespeople. Only recently, a joiner with a family of four bought a Canadian island and now he's building a house there, little by little. °That island is gone, it will never come back on the market,” says Vladi. It’s a family thing – when the children grow up there and have good memories of that time, they will never sell, or only “if they are really feeling the pinch.”
One thing’s for sure, the days when huge returns could be reaped on island deals are past and gone. In the property bubble, the prices for islands have also skyrocketed – it’s an absurd race. An owner once demanded 1.5 billion euros to let an island on the Philippines. “That is verging on the fraudulent,” says Vladi. At the moment, the market is showing healthy shrinkage, and Vladi isn't even particularly concerned about it.
Whispering Trees, for example, the Canadian island so perfect for anglers is currently up for sale at just under 50,000 euros. That’s the minimum offer price. The upper limit would have been adjusted if a Chinese consortium had actually bought land for 166 million euros off the coast of Panama. But then it turned out that the U.S. military had buried weapons on the island at the end of World War Two. Before anyone buys that particular island, the weapons would have to be removed, Vladi prophesies.
And perhaps investing in an island is ultimately a worthwhile proposition for buyers even without rising returns on their investment: It’s always on islands, after all, where fabulous treasures are supposed to be buried. But anyone hoping to unearth Robinson’s Crusoe’s musket has already missed the boat.
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